Fox // 1945 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // May 29th, 2013
I can't bear to share you with anybody.
I'm susceptible to the problem of needing to classify the movies I watch into genres. I know better, that while it's easy to call this movie a horror film and this other film a drama, it's rarely that simple or straightforward. Where does one place Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer? It's horrific and soul-crushing, but it's also a well-acted and cogently made biopic. Which is it? In spite of my predilection to classify, I know that it really doesn't matter. So, what does Henry have to do with the 1945 classic Leave Her to Heaven? Both admit multiple genres and both, by virtue of doing those disparate elements so well, become better by denying classification.
After meeting randomly and briefly flirting on a train, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney, Heaven Can Wait) and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde, The Naked Prey) discover that they are both en route to a mutual friend's New Mexico ranch. She is entranced by his resemblance to her beloved late father and quickly falls in love. Soon, she has thrown her current fiance (Vincent Price, The Bat) to the curb and convinced Richard to get a shotgun wedding. But Richard doesn't yet realize that Ellen "loves too much," and that she'll stop at almost nothing to possess him, no matter what he wants.
Based on the 1944 bestselling novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams, Leave Her to Heaven is a great all-around production, but its real value lies in how many elements from disparate genres it successfully touches on, giving different kinds of viewers their own things to grab onto without alienating any of the other things. Leave Her to Heaven has elements of the kind of melodrama that Douglas Sirk would later trade on, elements of film noir, elements of romance, family drama, and even the western genre. That might make the film seem unfocused, but quite the contrary; director John M. Stahl (Imitation of Life) wrangles all of it in with a slow-burning precision that allows every part to have its moment while building into a cohesive goal.
While people can grab onto many of the different elements that make up Leave Her to Heaven, it's the noir aspects that interest me most. There might be those who argue with that classification, given that it was filmed in Technicolor, takes place mostly in the expanses of the American Southwest, and doesn't have many of the plot elements we've come to identify with the genre. It may not be the most pure or true noir out there, but I argue that its incredibly cynical tone and the psychological imperative of the story make it more of a noir than many that we automatically associate with the genre.
I called Leave Her to Heaven "slow-burning," and it is, but Stahl doesn't take long to get the suspense and intrigue underway. At first, Ellen seems very normal, smitten with the man she just met who so happens to be the author of the book she is currently reading. Quickly, though, it becomes clear that she is anything but normal. She has come to New Mexico with her mother and adopted sister (Jeanne Crain, The Fastest Gun Alive) so she can scatter the ashes of her father, whom we are told she had an uncomfortably close relationship with, in the desert. That's not so bad until we see how obsessed she is with Richard's resemblance to Dad and how quickly she clings to him on this basis. After speeding along on horseback, spreading those ashes with a maniacal focus that is scarier than simple catharsis, she suddenly begins to actively pursue Richard. He is dazzled by her incredible beauty and intensity, so despite her nonchalant admittance of ending her previous engagement, willingly accepts her love, his one and only mistake in the film.
I won't spoil any of the awful things Ellen does once the marriage ensues, but she turns out to be an utter psychopath, jealous to the extreme, and scarily charismatic throughout. I'll just leave it at the idea that her machinations to keep him close knows no bounds; she'll ruin Richard's family, her own, and even her own body to keep him from loving anybody but her. In this, Gene Tierney is simply amazing to watch. In crime films of the era, it wasn't uncommon to find a wicked woman willing to laugh at the hapless protagonist who will destroy himself to win her impossible love. It's very rare, however, to find that same woman as the main character and chief villain on top of it. The story may be told through Richard's eyes, but it is Ellen's story and Tierney brings it off with one of the great performances of the era.
The supporting performances are pretty strong as well, but it almost doesn't matter when Tierney so thoroughly overshadows everybody else. Still, Wilde ably places the man who tries to love a woman who can't be loved. She loves, "too much" as her mother puts it, but her jealousy is far too strong to allow her to believe that somebody can love her back without force. Jeanne Crain is equally good as Ellen's little sister, the diametrical opposite of Ellen, and the focal point of Ellen's jealous anger. Her personality may come off as too sweet and innocent for the tone of the movie, but the character is necessary to remind audiences that Ellen is a dangerous aberration and, in this, Crain does very well.
Boosting the performances is an impeccable production. Stahl's quiet direction is perfectly assured, injecting a bit of style while allowing the characters to take front and center. The beauty and majesty of the Southwest is captured perfectly by cinematographer Leon Shamroy (Cleopatra), a beauty that offsets and accentuates the dark cynicism of the story, and the musical score by the legendary Alfred Newman (The Grapes of Wrath) fits the film perfectly. Leave Her to Heaven is brilliant in many ways, but none more so than the performance of Gene Tierney, who delivers one of the fiercest and most powerfully effective performances you're likely to see.
The Blu-ray for Leave Her to Heaven arrives from Fox on their limited edition Twilight Time imprint in an edition that does the trick in all facets. The 1.33:1/1080p transfer isn't perfect and, really, most of the films I've seen on the label fare better, but given the elements they had to work with (from a print that was pressed when studios started to decide that keeping originals of their old Technicolor films wasn't worth it), I really can't complain at all. The only real problem is the coloring, which absolutely does not have the saturation or warmth one expects from the process. All colors look a little soft, with reds appearing more brown and flesh tones all a little bit off, though it's never so bad as to be distracting. Luckily, everything else about the image is spectacular. The Southwestern landscapes have sharp detail all the way to the edges of the frame and there is nary a bit of dust or damage to the print. The film has never looked better. The mono sound mix is equally solid for what it is, with good dynamic range, sharp dialog, and clear space for Alfred Newman's strong musical score.
The extra features, unfortunately, falter a little bit. Most of them are pulled from Fox's previous DVD release of the film and, while that doesn't take away from their value, it won't necessarily entice previous owners on their virtue alone. In any case, they start with an audio commentary with film critic Richard Schickel and actor Darryl Hickman. It's an informative but strange piece. The two talks are clearly spliced together and, while Schickel contents himself with historical information about the production, an embittered Hickson prefers to spend his time slamming his experience making the movie in general and, specifically, disparaging the name of Gene Tierney. He may be right and he may be wrong, but I have a hard time understanding how the actress's history with mental illness is relevant to her performance in this or any other film. Moving on, we get Twilight Time's customary isolated score track, which is always welcome and sounds great, as usual. Movietone newsreel footage is interesting to see, but inconsequential, while the original trailer for the film rounds out the disc.
Like the book, Leave Her to Heaven was a big hit upon its release and, though it isn't necessarily "obscure," it hasn't maintained the presence in film history that it clearly deserves. Tierney's character, at once the film's femme fatale and primary villain, is nearly unique in that era of cinema. She is a force to behold here like she had never been before and is supported by a strong group of actors and a story that works on multiple levels equally well. If you haven't seen the movie, do so right away and, if you're a long-time fan of this great piece of work, the technical improvements make Fox's Blu-ray well worth the upgrade. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1945
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score